There are many reasons that account for creationism’s persistence in the United States. Most of them stem from the active lobbying of former “creation science” and now “intelligent design” proponents, who today work very hard to see that Americans equate evolution with atheism, and choose God over godless science. However, to my mind, none of these reasons accounts for the fact that Americans think there ought to be an alternative to evolution in the first place. This point bears some expanding before I continue.
There are of course many examples of two or more theories competing for acceptance in the scientific community. Earlier in the last century, for example, steady state models of the universe competed with the Big Bang model, and eventually the evidence for the Big Bang won out. However, it should be obvious that every question in science will have only one answer. Given that that is so, why should Americans, or anyone else, expect there to be alternative theories to evolution, whose evidence has proven out repeatedly over 150 years?
I submit that the answer lies in our love of freedom; specifically, freedom of choice.
We’re used to choosing among 300 different kinds of ketchup in the grocery store, and we glorify in it. The availability of such choice creates competition among ketchup makers, forcing them to keep quality high and prices low. The same kind of choice, with the same results, pervades every available product. It also pervades religion, another commodity which many Americans see as a matter of choosing among available options. Nw that I set it down in words, it seems odd to me that people would feel at home choosing among positions on the nature of humanity and its place in the universe, just as they would choosing among flavors of Pop Tarts, but such is the power of freedom of choice.
Now we come to creationism. Americans are brought up to think that it is their inviolable right to have the freedom to choose among a range of options, in products, in employers, in relationships, and in religion. It is no large step to extend this way of thinking to scientific theories. If we are free to choose among religions, which after all make factual claims about the universe and our place in it, based only on our own personal preferences, why shouldn’t we be free to choose among scientific theories on the same basis? I submit that this is what creationists have done. Seeing creationism and evolution as two equally valid theories, they choose the one most pleasing to them personally.
I’m sure I have grossly simplified many matters here, not the least of which is the fact that a good number of Americans do not in fact consciously choose their religion, but receive it whole cloth from the one thing no one is free to choose: their parents. Still, I believe this deeply felt sense of entitlement to choice plays a part. In combating it, then, it falls to educators (like me) to impart on children more stringent criteria for choice, among them empirical evidence and rational argument. They will choose in any case, and it falls on us to see that they choose wisely.